Archive | Parenting

Tips For Adulthood: Five Facts About Bilingualism

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I met a woman at a friend’s house a couple of years ago who told me that she’d hired a French nanny for her three young children so that they could learn French. I liked the idea and wished her well. But as she and her husband were both American, I secretly doubted that the experiment would bear much fruit.

I ran into her again a few weeks ago and we got to talking about her child care situation. She told me that all three kids – who now range in age from three to seven – were bilingual and that she had just finished ordering them some new books on Amazon France.

Wow! I thought. Impressive. And then I felt a pang of envy. Both of my kids are learning French in school. But they are a long way from bilingual. And even though the British Education Secretary has proposed that every child in the U.K. learn a foreign language from age five, that may actually be too late.

To wit, five facts about bilingualism:

1. Bilingualism affects brain development from infancy. A fascinating article in The New York Times explains the ways in which the brains of babies in bilingual households develop differently from those raised in a mono-lingual household. Apparently, while bilingual babies take longer to distinguish phonetic sounds in either language, once they do come to recognize them, they can then hear them in both languages, while mono-lingual babies lose this facility by the time they are one. Even in the womb, one study showed that babies born to bilingual mothers not only prefer both of those languages over others — but are also able to register that the two languages are different. Wow!

2. When learning a foreign language, it’s best to start early. Younger learners still have the ability to develop near native-like pronunciation and intonation in a new language. They are also more open and curious (as a rule) to foreign peoples and cultures. There are also cognitive benefits to learning an additional language early. Bilingual children have greater neural activity and denser tissue in the areas of the brain related to memory, attention, and language than monolingual learners. These indicators are associated with long-term positive cognitive outcomes (see below).

3. But you can still learn a foreign language as an adult. While it’s true that our ability to hear and understand a second language becomes more difficult with age, the adult brain can be retrained to pick up foreign sounds more easily again. According to a study at University College London, the difficulties that adults have in learning languages are not biological, but perceptual. Thus, given the right stimuli, adult brains can overcome the habits they have developed to effectively crowd out certain sounds and learn new ones. Neat!

4. Bilingual people do better academically. Yet another reason to raise your kids speaking two (or more!) languages is that it enhances academic performance. Students who learn a foreign language out-score their non-foreign language learning peers in the verbal and – surprisingly, perhaps – math sections of standardized tests, particularly in the area of problem solvingThey do better in school and are also more open to diversity, according to François Thibaut, who runs The Language Workshop for Children, which has nine schools around the East Coast of the United States.

5. Bilingual people also do better in other areas of cognitive functioning. In addition to their double vocabularies, bilingual children have stronger and more flexible cognitive abilities. Mastering two or more languages helps them solve logic problems and handle multi-tasking, skills that are often considered part of the brain’s so-called executive function.

I don’t know about you, but I find this stuff fascinating. In another life I will become a linguistic anthropologist. You?


Tsali Boulevard by Caveman Chuck Coker via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

New (School) Year’s Resolution: Do Less For Your Kids

Well, I’m back from my ten-day vacation in the U.S., where – despite landing about 18 hours before Hurricane Irene kicked in – we managed to have a mostly bright and sunny family holiday filled with lots of swimming and relaxation.

Re-entry? Not so relaxing.

Within the first 24 hours of landing (on a red-eye), we viewed two flats for potential purchase, got caught in a torrential downpour which soaked all four pairs of Wellies (boots) worn in our family and began the migraine-inducing, spread-sheet requiring coordination nightmare that is planning the after-school activity calendar.

I’ve written before about how best to manage re-entry after a vacation and sadly, I did not really take my own advice this time around. (Addendum to this list: do not write checks when you have only slept for 1.5 hours.)

But I did one thing right, which was to resolve to tackle one “big” thing on my endless To-Do list: having my kids take more responsibility for themselves.

I’d been thinking about this before I went away and – per an earlier post on life skills for ten-year-olds – had already begun to put them in charge of things like cutting their own food and tying their own shoes. (Yeah, I know…pathetic. But better late than never.) They are also both required to do a chore: my son is in charge of the recycling and my daughter sets the table every night.

But as summer wore on, I realized how very much I do for both of them  – things like laying out my son’s school uniform in the morning and clearing all of the dirty plates from the table – the very sorts of things that no one did for me when I was ten years old.

While in the States, I also spent some time with my brothers’ six (!) kids and noticed how all of them – even the 6 and 8 year 0ld – do a lot for themselves.

And then, upon my return, I happened to read this fabulous post on the New York Times Motherlode blog entitled A Traveling Parent’s List. In it, legal scholar Lisa McElroy shares the lengthy and detailed To-Do list she left for her husband when departing on a recent two-week business trip. It includes things ranging from asking him to buy their daughter a sparkly (but not crop-topped) leotard  to telling him how to prepare home-made tomato sauce to requesting that he obtain more food for their pet frog.

I’m sure that this post was written tongue-in-cheek. But even if McElroy is making fun of her own control-freak tendencies, I’m guessing that there’s more than a hint of truth in there.

Lord knows she’s not alone. I just pulled up a document from my own computer, plucked from a week-long trip I took a few years back. On it, in addition to the sorts of normal things you might remind a spouse to do – like giving my son his asthma medicine and being sure that the kids bathe every so often (!) – there were also things like (original formatting included):


–please open Isaac’s book bag and take out any relevant slips/sheets etc, and save the weekly newsletter for me when I return; also clear out sandwiches/snacks/water etc as he wont have school for 10 days

remember to wash Isaac with Green soap and for allie use 3 capfuls of white Oilatum stuff in the water

–after they’re done, coat her body with white lotion (and hydrocortisone as necessary)



When I look at this list now, I cringe. And I know – in a way I perhaps didn’t realize even a few years back – that as with so many things involving our kids, this list is so much more about me than it is about them. My children don’t really need me to micro-manage their lives. They are both, in fact, quite independent. And my husband is more than capable of making sure that they get to school on time and eat their sandwiches.

Rather, *I* need to micro-manage their lives because it helps me to feel…in control. I’m not proud of that. But it’s true.

But that needs to change. Among other things, I’m hoping to go back to work full time (more on that later) so I will – per force – have to let go. My kids are also demanding more independence for themselves. My ten-year old wants to walk to school on his own. And if he does that, he’ll need a cell phone. (Both ideas terrify me.)

So, it’s time to cut some chords. As of about a month ago, they are both now in charge of making their own breakfasts. And last night I insisted that both of them clear their dirty plates from the table. I also let my son figure out when his violin lesson is happening this week, rather than looking into it for him.

These are small steps, I realize. But Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Nor is adulthood.


Image: 324/365 Lists by Vinnie123 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.








Tips For Adulthood: Five Virtues of Video Games

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

In the grand scheme of things, our household is pretty far out there on the anti-screen-time spectrum.

Our kids don’t own DS’s or Wii’s or Playstations, we limit their computer time, and neither my husband nor I ever plays video games.

I make no apologies for this lifestyle, as I’ve always believed – pace Roger Ebert and assorted others – that my time is better spent on other forms of art. Moreover, where my kids are concerned, I’m with those who maintain that children are better off learning to be bored.

And yet, a lot of my grown up friends play games. And many are firm believers that there is a lot to be said for gaming, beyond it just being fun.

In this spirit, and because – as a journalist – I firmly believe that you need to check your own biases, I’ve assembled five intelligent arguments I’ve come across recently about the relative merits of gaming. I’m not saying that I necessarily buy into the following list hook, line and sinker. But it has made me question some of my own suppositions.

To wit, here are five putative virtues of video games:

1. They teach you about complex systems. According to the Boston Globe, the next frontier for video games are ones that teach you about current events. Whether it’s how to understand the causes of the credit crunch or preventing the outbreak of food-borne disease, these games are thought to force people to see the news as a realm of choice and complexity rather than as packaged information. And that is something that traditional news outlets – by definition – cannot do.

2. They reward courage, skill and honor. That, at least, is the argument put forth by writer Trevor Butterworth in The Daily, who only discovered the joys of gaming in middle age. While Butterworth acknowledges that the worlds he creates Online aren’t as labor-intensive as the model-building he engaged in as a youth, he feels that the games industry has become, in effect, “a tribal elder for the world’s teenagers, pushing them through ever more complex feats of prestidigitation.” Others also see the potential for the acquisition of “real world” skills via gaming, whether because they reward good behavior or because, like chess, they teach strategy or planning.

3. They are interactive. If you’re like me, it’s tempting to put video games in the same box as television – i.e. as a mindless, passive activity that saps the imagination. But as a fellow commenter on Butterworth’s post pointed out, there’s actually a big difference between TV and video games. The former *is* passive, whereas the latter enables you to have input into your own story. In fact, he went so far as to favor video gaming over books on this point because you don’t have to read someone else’s tale; you are able to create your own. Food for thought.

4. They don’t have to come at the expense of reading. I think that a lot of parents – myself included – fear that video games will ruin our children’s desire to read. I’m not sure that we have conclusive evidence on this point yet. (One study suggests that having computers in the home increases a child’s computer literacy but not his or her literacy, although that’s somewhat different than video games per se.) But I was quite taken with this account by fellow-traveller Lorraine Rice who recounts how – despite her own reservations – she felt that video games taught her son how to read and to understand history. This whole question still makes me nervous, but I did find her piece reassuring.

5. They are inevitable. Of all the arguments in favor of video games, I find this to be the most persuasive, especially where children are concerned. As writer Andrew Leonard on Babble concludes, even if you try to eliminate violent video games in your own home, they are going to encounter them somewhere else. So you’re ultimately better off talking to your kids about what they are encountering in these games – and being part of that world *with* them – than pretending that this isn’t an integral part of today’s cultural landscape. A hard thing to swallow, but there it is.

So now I turn it over to you. What do you think? Are video games uniformly bad for kids or do they have some upsides?

Image: Video Game Walhalla by localjapantimes via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.



Tips For Adulthood: Five Things Teaching Taught Me About Parenting

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Over on the fabulous Beyond The Margins blog, Lisa Saffran has a great post about why teaching makes you a better writer.

It also makes you a better parent.

Here are five things my recent stint teaching writing taught me about parenting:

1. Focus on Praise. This is parenting 101 here, but it’s something that we parents – (OK, me) – frequently forget. I remember attending a parenting seminar a few years back. One of the central takeaway points (and yes, I did take notes!) was that you should always emphasize the positive with your children in very specific terms. (e.g., “Well done for putting your tee-shirt on your arms and not your legs!” or “How nice that you didn’t hit your sister!”) I noticed that when I was teaching, I was incredibly positive with the students, encouraging them for everything they did, because I knew that even if they didn’t always get things right, they were giving it their best shot. Moreover, I also figured that seeing me praise those who were trying hard would motivate those who were hanging back to come out of their shells and raise their hands. And you know what? It worked. But then on the bus ride home I thought, why don’t I do this with my own kids? Instead of constantly telling them what they do wrong and trying to make them “better,” why don’t I heap praise upon their accomplishments – large and small alike – as a way of encouraging them? As I said, parenting 101, to be sure, but a lesson worth re-learning.

2. Ignore bad behavior. A corollary to #1 is that when possible, you should ignore bad behavior. Perhaps because they weren’t my own children, I found it easy to ignore it when the kids acted up in class (which to be fair to them, wasn’t all that often.) But if they said a naughty word or went off on an irrelevant tangent or did something silly or chided another child, I just carried on as if I didn’t see it/hear it and could really care less. And once again, it startled me how quickly they gave up on the bad behavior when they saw that it wasn’t getting a rise out of me. My kids fight a lot and my son – in particular – isn’t very nice to his younger sister. And while I know that he’s doing a lot of that to get “negative” attention from me, I still find it hard not to step in to defend her. But as I observed when I was teaching, that’s usually counter-productive. The more I can ignore his bullying and teasing (except when it gets violent), the less likely he is to do it.

3. Change takes time. I’ve been teaching creative writing for the past few weeks to junior high-aged students. On the last day of class, we did a workshop where the kids had to read a selection of their work (poem/story/memoir) and talk about how they’d incorporated at least two of the writing techniques we’d learned to improve their writing. One of the groups I was working with really took this on board and came to class prepared to talk about their revisions. But the other group hadn’t really done so. Which surprised me, since it was very clear to me during the lessons that they’d gotten the material. At first, I took this as a sign that I’d failed as a teacher (with this group, anyway.) But when I talked about it later with their English teacher, she said that she sees this all the time. And what she’s come to realize is that you can’t expect them to absorb everything overnight. They might well “get” what it is that you’re teaching them in class, but it might still take weeks – if not months – for those lessons to show up in their writing. This is good advice for parents as well. At least for those of us who are – cough – trying to impart certain life skills to our ten-year-olds, we need to understand that it progress is incremental. And if we lower our expectations, our kids may actually surpass them.

4. Shout as a last resort. One of the biggest differences I’ve encountered in the British school system (vs. the American one) is that it’s OK for teachers to shout at kids. I’m not here to defend that behavior – or even to analyze it. But I did notice that the teacher I worked with only shouted as a last resort. She tried any other manner of strategies with the (sometimes quite boisterous) kids short of yelling at them when they did something wrong: dialoguing, incentivizing, cajoling, ignoring. Even that old chestnut, counting to three. Again, more good advice for parents. Sometimes shouting just seems like the most efficient short-cut when you’re annoyed with your kid for setting the house on fire. And sometimes it’s useful. But it should be the last thing you do as a parent, not the first.

5. Don’t assume you know everything. When you’re teaching a class – especially if there are a lot of pupils – you can’t always tell who’s paying attention and who isn’t. Moreover, sometimes the kids who speak up the most produce the weakest written work and vice-versa. In one of the classes I just taught, one boy who never opened his mouth once produced two jaw-droppingly beautiful poems. It’s the same with parenting. You don’t always know what’s going on in your kids’ minds. So you need to watch. And listen. They might just surprise you.


Image: Students In Classrooms at UIS 10-15-10 by jeremy.wilburn via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.




Tips For Adulthood: Five Life Skills For Ten Year Olds

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

At my son’s school, they periodically teach the children what they call “life skills.”

I’m not exactly sure what they cover in that curriculum. I suspect that it may have more to do with social/emotional development. But I like the term “life skills,” as it captures something practical about what kids need to do to get on in life, as opposed to just learning facts.

When your kids are little, there are plenty of “life skills” milestones. Potty training is, of course, the first giant hurdle. Sleeping through the night on their own is another one, if you go in for that sort of thing.

But as your kids get older, they also need to acquire certain life skills. And if you’re like me, you wake up one day and realize that your ten year-old doesn’t know how to tie his shoes and you think: Yikes!

To that end, and because April in the UK this year was basically one giant, extended holiday, I decided to devote that month to helping my son master some basic life skills.

To wit, here are ten things all ten year-olds should know how to do:

1. Tie their shoes. I can’t say I’m proud of this. But I looked down one day and realized that with the advent of Velcro, my son didn’t know how to tie his shoes. This concern had actually been rummaging around in the recesses of my mind for quite some time. (And apparently, I’m not alone. More five year-olds today can operate a Smart Phone app than can tie their shoes. But it wasn’t until I took my son to his weekly soccer practice and noticed that all of the other boys were wearing lace up cleats (boots) that I realized it was time to pull the trigger. The good news? He mastered it in about 24 hours. (Seeing a friend tie his shoes without even looking down was a big incentive.) The bad news? It’s really hard to explain, especially when you’re facing your kid as it means explaining it backwards. (Here are some useful tips for how to teach this skill.)

2. Ride a bike. Once again, I know that I was way behind on this one. And my advice to anyone else wondering when the optimal time to teach a kid to ride a bike would be: earlier is better than later. I think that when they are lower to the ground the whole thing is less scary and dramatic. But now that he’s mastered this skill, he begs me to take him for bike rides. Next up? Riding our bikes to school. Can’t wait.

3. Cut with a knife and fork. This was another life skill I added to my list once I realized that I was really tired of cutting my son’s meat up for him every time we ate. I’m not sure if I’m alone on this, but I think that learning to cut properly with a knife and fork is actually pretty hard to teach. (And to learn. Lord knows I’ve seen some adults who struggle with this particular challenge.) Here are some handy tips I found on the Internet. I love #10: be patient. Not exactly my son’s forté. (Nor my own.) Sigh.

4. Employ Good Handwriting. Oh, how we have struggled with this one. For the longest time, my son insisted (and not entirely without reason) that in the age of computers, handwriting is totally passé. (Oh and by the way? Those of you who are nostalgic for the lost art of handwriting? The typewriter has gone the way of the horse and buggy as well.) But over the Easter holidays – and with the encouragement (and insistence) of his English teacher – we went back and actually re-learned cursive (joined up) from the ground up. I can’t say it was always smooth sailing. But boy, did he improve. I also realized that my own handwriting is complete rubbish. (Life skills for 45 year-olds, anyone?)

5. Get along with their siblings. Yeah, that’s more of a work in progress. I’ll let you know how it goes…


What am I missing?


Image: tying by vistavision via Flickr under a Creative Commons license




Is It Ever O.K. To Spy On Your Kids?

I’ve mentioned before that my ten-year-old son seems to have entered adolescence early.

And while that solves certain problems, it opens up a host of others. Like how to monitor what he’s up to on the computer. Whereas that once amounted to limiting his time on Fifa 09, it now amounts to making sure that he’s not surreptitiously downloading Assassin’s Creed onto our iPhone.

So when I saw that his school was offering a free parenting discussion group about boys and the Internet, I thought, “Why not?” and went along.

I showed up, pen in hand, thinking that the nice lady offering the seminar was going to give me a list of websites I could visit and download all the appropriate Internet controls.

Wrong. While she did direct us to one or two websites, the very first point that she made was that however much you think you might be able to control what your kids do on the computer, you can’t. If they don’t see whatever it is you don’t want them seeing at your own home, they’ll see it at a friends’ home.

Or they’ll discover a way to get around the controls. One gentleman at the seminar noted that his 13-year-old was at Boarding School where the boys get their own rooms. Apparently, in his very first term, his son had not only gotten around the school’s firewalls for pornography and the like, the kid was actually administering them. (And I could *totally* see my computer-savvy child doing exactly the same thing.)

So takeaway point #1 from this meeting was that the best way to manage the Internet with a teenager is *not* to devise ever more secure locks, as I’d perhaps naively hoped. It was to start talking with your son or daughter…now. Talk to them about the kinds of images they might encounter on the web…talk to them about the kinds of people they might encounter on the web…talk to them about how to handle potentially inappropriate content when they are out of the home.

Which was, upon reflection, sort of reassuring.

But the meeting also raised some other interesting challenges for parenting teens.

There was one priceless moment where one of the Moms confessed that she’d discovered recently that her son, aged 10, had been Googling “Girls’ bottoms” on the Internet. The Mom’s response was to wait about a week and then give her son a book about human anatomy (without telling her son that she’d been monitoring his “history” on the Internet).

“You mean you’re spying on your son?” one Dad asked, in shock.

“Well, I wouldn’t call it spying,” this Mom responded. “It’s more like benevolent monitoring.”

“And you’re not going to tell him that you’re spying on him?” the Dad continued.

“No. If I tell him, then I won’t be able to keep checking up on his history. And I want to be able to do that.”

(Allow me to reveal that this exchange was quite possibly the closest I’d ever come to witnessing open conflict between two English people during my five years living in the U.K., and the journalist in me was lapping it up. More to the point, in a country where there’s one CCTV camera for every 32 people, the political implications of where you fall on “spying” vs. “benevolent monitoring” were hard to miss.)

Interestingly, about half of the parents in the room thought that checking up on your kids behind their backs was absolutely fine and could see themselves doing something similar. There was even one woman who thought that children shouldn’t have access to the Internet – at all! – before they were 14. (Sorry, honey, I’m deeply sympathetic, but I think that horse has left the barn.)

The other half of those assembled were less comfortable with this mom’s self-described “benevolent monitoring” and felt that – at a minimum – she should have told her son what she was doing.

I found myself somewhere in the middle. I don’t check my son’s email routinely, though when it’s open I do find myself glancing down at  his inbox to see if anything inappropriate has surfaced. On the other hand,  I do think that if you’re going to talk to your kid about sex, it’s probably best to do it directly rather than indirectly.

What do you think? Is it ever OK to spy on your kids – on the Internet or anywhere else? And should you tell them that you’re doing it?

Image: CCTV – 30 St. Mary Axe by chiselwright via Flickr under a Creative Commons license






Tips For Adulthood: How To Manage Without Your Spouse

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

My husband is away on a business trip this week. I’m very lucky that he travels so infrequently. And usually when he is gone, it’s only for a few days at a time.

But this time he’s gone for an entire eight days. And because we don’t have a car or regular childcare, it can be a bit of a challenge to manage when he’s not around – both logistically and emotionally.

I tried really hard to gear up for his absence before he left, and so far (Happy Hump Day!) things are working out pretty well. Here are five tips for managing your life when your spouse or partner goes out of town:

1. Be relaxed but organized. That – courtesy of my fabulous life coach – is my mantra this week. As regular readers of this blog  know, the “organized” part comes easily. I am, after all, a walking calendar. But relaxed? Not so much. Especially when the carefully carved out division of labor between myself and my husband goes awry. (There’s a reason I’m not in charge of the kids’ music practice…) So every time I find myself tensing up, I just repeat that phrase out loud. I also keep a stress ball located in various corners of the house – my desk, the piano, next to the stove – so that I can just squeeeeeeze the anxiety out when it arises.

2. Do less. If, like me, you’re someone who tries to cram all of the 65,000 things you normally do in any given week into a week where – for whatever reason…school holidays…ill children…AWOL spouse – you simply have less time, here’s a radical proposal: do less. If necessary, pretend that you’re sick. You’ll be amazed how much better you feel.

3. Bribe your kids. I suppose the politically correct term here would be “incentivize,” but whatever. The point is – if you have children – you need to motivate them to get through the week despite all the changes to the normal schedule. In our case, because my kids attend different schools, the main hurdle is vaulting ourselves through the morning school run which is normally split between my husband and myself. This means getting up half an hour earlier, moving through breakfast at a brisk pace, and adding two additional 25 minute walks to my seven-year-old’s day. The incentive? Because I have one of those daughters who really cares how she looks, I have secretly saved a skirt and “half-jumper” (sweater) that we bought last week and she thought we were returning. I will bestow it upon her this evening just in time for…Come Dressed As Your Favorite Book Character Day at school tomorrow. (Isn’t it fortunate that Jane, the elder sister in Pride and Prejudice, wears long skirts?)

4. Treat yourself. Be sure to carve out time for yourself when your spouse/partner is away, where you can relax doing the kinds of things that you enjoy doing (particularly the ones he or she doesn’t like). In my case,  as a huge and often unrequited fan of the Oscars, I cordoned off all of Monday night to watch a special Oscar Highlights program (time change made it impossible to watch live), followed by Glee. Imagine my delight.

5. Appreciate the absent spouse. This is also key, for both partners and children. When someone’s away, try to set aside some time to think about and talk about why it’s sad that they’re not there, beyond just the inconvenience of it all. What do they bring to the family? What do you miss when they’re gone? (Be prepared that this may backfire. When I asked my kids the other day at breakfast “Imagine if Daddy was always traveling. Wouldn’t that be awful?” my son responded: “Well, we’d definitely have a car.”) Not exactly what I was looking for, but it’s a start…


For those who are interested, here’s a post I did over at Politics Daily on new medical guidelines in the U.K. telling women that abortion is safer than childbirth.

Image: Glee by statelyenglishmanor via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Parenting Kids With Food Allergies

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Woven into the many and varied items on my to-do list this week – which range from getting my haircut to helping my husband edit one of his academic papers to writing, oh, about 6,000 blog posts – is to be sure that every day, right before I pick up my son, I also pick up some tuna sushi.

Don’t imagine for one moment that I’m doing this for myself. I dislike fish…I hate sushi…and I almost never stop to eat once the whirlwind, 90-minute after-school pick-up run is in motion. (If only!)

No, I’m assiduously folding in a stop at Hi Sushi every afternoon this week because last week, my son officially passed an in-hospital food challenge for tuna. Which means that now that it’s safe for him to eat tuna, he needs to keep eating it for the rest of his life. (Specifically, three times a week for the next fortnight and once every two weeks thereafter.) More on that below.

Dealing with food allergies is so woven into my life at this point that I sometimes forget how little the rest of the world knows about them. (An immunologist once told me that they are also quite poorly understood by the medical profession as well.)

So for those of you who have a child with a known food allergy, fear that your kid might or simply wonder what is *up* with all those people freaking out about peanuts on an airplane, here are five facts about parenting kids with food allergies:

1. The science is changing. True, allergies may not be well understood vis a vis other common childhood diseases. But as the number of children suffering from food allergies continues to grow (according to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 million U.S. children have food or digestive allergies, affecting nearly 5 percent of all children under 5), we are learning more about the causes and treatments of food allergies with each passing year. And the science is changing. A fascinating recent article in The New Yorker detailed the nature of these changes which – excitingly for me – are being carried out by a research team here in London at my son’s allergy clinic. (Summary here; subscription for full article.) The thrust of the article is that whereas the conventional wisdom once held that infants with food allergies should avoid the foods at all costs (unless and until they outgrew them), the new thinking is that the best way to treat allergies is to “desensitize” infants by exposing them to the allergen in small increments over time.

2. Allergies come and go. As noted above, my son has just outgrown his tuna allergy. Last year, he outgrew his peanut allergy and a few years before that, his soy allergy. That’s the good news. The bad news? Allergies can also strike at any point. My son wasn’t always allergic to fish. Or to sesame. Until he was about four, I regularly fed him fish sticks from Whole Foods (egg and milk free!) as well as sesame bagels. But around the age of four, he could no longer eat cod or any other white fish without breaking out in hives (an allergy which persists, along with sesame.) And that’s precisely the reason that now that we know that tuna is safe, we need to keep giving it to him for the rest of his life, lest the allergy come back.

3. Alternative tests don’t work. The two main diagnostic methods for identifying food allergies are skin prick tests – in which potentially troublesome foods are scratched into the skin and any resulting swellings analyzed – and IgE (immunoglobulin) blood tests, which check for specific antibodies. But at least according to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), alternative tests for children’s food allergies – such as hair analysis or muscle weakness – should be avoided because there is little evidence that they work.

4. Mistakes happen. If you have a kid with potentially life-threatening food allergies as I do, you can kill yourself trying to eliminate every last possible trigger that might plausibly induce an allergic reaction. But you know what? Sooner or later, someone’s going to make a mistake. You’ll accidentally pour the wrong milk into his cereal bowl. (Guilty.) Or you’ll go to a restaurant and even though they’ve assured you up, down and sideways that  – no, the brocolli really wasn’t cooked in butter – it was. I once watched a two-year old with an egg allergy cavalierly march up to the table at a bake sale when his father wasn’t looking, down a blueberry muffin and – within minutes – turn blue and require an epipen. I almost fainted, with my own severely-egg-allergic child looking on. But you know what? I also learned a valuable lesson. The kid was fine afterwards. His dad (who administered the epipen) was calm throughout. And I realized – once again – that Sh%$ happens.

5. Don’t feel sorry for kids with allergies. If I had a dime for every time someone (well-meaningly) said to me: “Gosh, I’m so sorry for your son that he can’t eat… pizza…ice cream…milk chocolate…[fill in the blank].” But you know what? He’s fine! He doesn’t care that he’s never eaten ice cream because he doesn’t know what he’s missing. To him, dark chocolate is a luxury. So is marzipan (almond being one of the few nuts he can tolerate.) And the fact that he can’t eat most junk food means that he’s way healthier than most of his peers. (I have a friend whose ten-year-old son recently grew out of his milk allergy and she didn’t even tell him because she doesn’t want him to start eating Hershey’s bars.) Those of us who live this life know no other. So don’t feel sorry for us. But yes, by all means bring along some vegan donut holes the next time you drop by. Surprisingly tasty!

And speaking of which, I really must run. Hi Sushi beckons…

Image: Warning – Allergy Advice: Contains Milk by Danny McL via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Tips For Adulthood: Five Facts About Teenagers

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

About a week ago, I told my ten-year-old son that all of his friends from his old school were attending a Valentine’s Day disco this year with girls. “Isn’t that funny?” I remarked. “I mean, I can’t imagine you going to a dance with a girl!”

His response: “You know nothing about my private life.”

I reported that exchange on my Facebook page.

Shortly thereafter, a friend with two teenagers commented wisely: “This is only the beginning.”

As my children are but 10 and 7, the teen years and all of their related angst and drama still seem so far off. And yet, every time I open up a newspaper lately, I’m confronted with a new (often disturbing) fact about teens.

On the basis that forewarned is forearmed, here are five things we all need to know about teenagers these days:

1. They don’t use email. I actually learned this over the Christmas holidays when I tried (in vain) to reach one of my teen-aged nieces by email. Her father (my brother) shook his head. “Kids don’t use email anymore,” he said. “They don’t even use voicemail. If you want their attention, text them.” He’s right. According to a new survey, email use dropped 59 percent among users aged 12-17. Instead, young people are turning to social networks to communicate, which accounts for 14 percent of time spent online in the U.S. Michelle Obama’s views notwithstanding – Facebook accounts for most of that growth.

2. Peer Pressure is influenced by brain activity. In studies at Temple University, psychologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 40 teenagers and adults to determine if there are differences in brain activity when adolescents are alone versus with their friends. They found that – unlike adults – teenagers are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching. The good news? They’ll grow out of it. The bad news? There’s a lot of room for accidents and bad decisions in the meantime.

3. Popular kids are more likely to be bullies. OK, this might not be all that surprising, especially for those of use who choose to re-live our high school years every week on Glee. But it’s comforting to know that this well-known fact is apparently grounded in science. According to a paper published in the American Sociological Review, the more central you are to your school’s social network, the more aggressive you are as well (unless and until you reach the very top.) The take home point? Social climbing = meanness. (Something tells me this might also be true for adults…)

4. Heaving drinking as an adolescent tends to continue. This is both alarming and depressing. According to yet another recent study, heavy drinking in the late teen years often continues into adulthood and is associated with long-term alcohol-related problems. But here’s another interesting finding: teenagers who are raised with a religious outlook are less likely to abuse alcohol (at least through early adulthood). So the next time you hear someone say “Oh, they’re just kids! We all binged when we were kids!” Think again. Or send your kids to Church.

5. Sex isn’t necessarily bad for schoolwork. Well, here’s some good news (at least for some). Sexually active teens don’t necessarily do worse in school. According to a study presented at the American Sociological Association last summer, teens in committed relationships do no better or worse in school than those who don’t have sex. (The same is not true for teens who engage in casual “hook-ups” – their academic performance does deteriorate vs. teens who abstain.) The moral of the story? If your teenager is going steady, don’t sweat it, at least on account of his or her grades. But you might want to be sure they’re being careful. American teens use condoms and birth control pills considerably less than their counterparts in other industrialized countries, have more abortions and considerably higher rates of HIV and STDs.

Image: teenagers in my basement by tifotter via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

For those who are interested, here’s a post I wrote earlier this week about our unending obsession with the sex lives of others, especially Julian Assange and Silvio Berlusconi.

Abortion Less Traumatic Than Childbirth, Study Finds

As the abortion wars heat up once again, there’s a new study out that’s sure to add fuel to the fire. A leading medical journal reports that having an abortion may be less damaging to a woman’s mental health than having a baby.

The study — which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week — tracked 365,550 girls and women in Denmark who had a first-trimester abortion or first-time delivery between 1995 and 2007. Researchers selected females with no history of mental health problems prior to getting pregnant. They then compared the rate of mental health treatment (as measured by an inpatient admission or outpatient visit) within the 12 months after the abortion or childbirth as compared with the 9-month period preceding it.

The study found that women who had an abortion sought psychiatric treatment at roughly the same rate before and after that event, while the incidence with which women who gave birth sought counseling increased dramatically after having a baby.

Specifically, one percent of women sought help for possible mental disorders in the nine months before the abortion, while 1.5 percent did so in the 12 months that followed. On the other hand, 0.3 percent of women who gave live birth visited a psychiatrist for the first time in the nine months before birth compared to an average of 0.7 percent in the year that followed. So even though women seeking abortions are statistically more likely to have emotional problems to begin with, the study concludes they actually “suffer” less after the abortion than their counterparts who have children.

The scholars’ conclusion? Contrary to popular belief (and heretofore received scientific wisdom), women’s mental health is not seriously compromised by having an (early) abortion.

Read the rest of this story at


Image: Pregnant Woman by Bete a Bon-Dieu via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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